A Man Who Goes to Work Sick Explains Himself

On Man Up, Aymann Ismail stages an intervention with his coughing co-worker.

A man in a suit sneezing into a tissue
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of Man Up, host Aymann Ismail confronts his own boss about coming into work sick. First, Slate culture editor Forrest Wickman makes the case for keeping your germs at home, and then deputy editor Lowen Liu examines why he himself still comes into the office coughing and sneezing. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Forrest Wickman: I have a peeve, not only about people coming into work sick, but about people saying something is “just a cold.” Because when I get a cold, I tend to be sick for one to two weeks, and it might turn into a sinus infection. And because I’m a person who wants to keep his germs at home, it means I’m working from home for one to two weeks. I don’t love that, but at Slate, most of us are working on the internet. We have teleconferencing. The vast majority of us can just work from home, and your work is not really different. And when you’re coming to work, you might convince yourself “I’m being a better worker,” but you’re actually being a much worse worker because you’re getting all your co-workers sick and making them less efficient.

Aymann Ismail: I have to admit I am one of those people who will come into work sick because I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s just a cold.” But I was starting to wonder—why? Why am I showing up to work even if I’m not feeling up for it?

Wickman: Well, this is why I think what we need to do is change the culture. The stigma right now is often around working from home. But really the stigma should be around working in the office. And I think that stigma is shifting a little bit right now. To give people credit, I think it can often come from a place of selflessness, where you think, If I don’t go into the office, I’m going to be creating all this work for other people. I’m going to be making other people Zoom to me. For the sake of this other person, I should meet with them in the flesh. And most of the time I would rather we just met over Zoom or Skype or whatever.

What we need to do is make it so that everyone thinks that the thing that they’re supposed to do, and the thing that everybody wants them to do, and the thing that is honored and praised, is not continuing to work. The thing is staying from home. And it’s a little tricky because you don’t want to tell people to work from home, especially if that someone is, for example, your boss.

Ismail: So how sick are you right now?

Lowen Liu: I think I’m on the way back. I’ve been saying that every day for three weeks now. I mean, this winter’s been bad for a lot of people. There’s obviously stuff on the news going on. I have a young kid who’s in a day care setting, so I’m getting the germs of 24 kids all at once. But I’ve never really had a stretch like this, so it’s a little bit surprising to me. But it also is the ultimate example of, I guess, my hardheadedness.

Ismail: Why do you think it’s hardheaded to show up to work while you’re sick?

Liu: I mean, I’m not going to defend working while sick. I’m definitely somebody who doesn’t practice what I preach. I will tell people, “If you’re feeling sick, don’t come into work.” But then I’ll do it myself.

Ismail: When I’m sick, I’ll try and show up to the office because there’s something about performing work that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s not enough to just do good work. I almost feel like I’m slacking if I’m not showing up to work and showing my face and saying hi to people. I feel like office culture is a part of the job, and if I’m just going to work from home for two, three days in a row, I’m going to feel like I’m not doing enough to work.

Liu: Yeah. You want to be seen working, you want to feel busy—and it goes both ways. I feel when you’re in the hum of the active office, you feel a level of productivity, whether or not people are seeing you being productive. And then the other thing is my workday is taken up by a lot of meetings, so I feel if I lose a day, I’m letting a ton of people down. Sometimes I just have the motivation to push through it.

Ismail: Is there a threshold for how sick you have to feel to take the day off?

Liu: I think—and this is probably telling—the last few times that I have taken time off for illness have been half days. I’ll start working, and then I’ll get yelled at.

Ismail: Who’s yelling at you?

Liu: My peers. Forrest. We have an open office, so a lot of desks around each other, and many people hear me cough and say: “You should be at a doctor. I don’t know what you’re doing in the office,” stuff like that. I mean, that’s good peer pressure.

Ismail: I don’t know about you, but there’s some distance between when I first get sick and when I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m sick. I wonder how much it takes for you to admit to yourself that you’re sick.

Liu: It takes a lot in order to do what I do, as stupidly as I do it. It takes a certain level of denial. I live with someone, I’m married, and so I have somebody who will just be, “You look like you’re getting sick.” And so I can hear myself say out loud, “No, I don’t think so.”

Ismail: It’ll pass.

Liu: A part of me knows I’m going to eat it later. There’s a tendency, and I don’t know if this is masculine or not, to feel like force of will is all powerful or the thing that can overrule reality.

Ismail: Mind over matter?

Liu: Right. So, if I tell myself I can get through it, then I feel like I can get through it.

Ismail: It feels like there’s a lot of consequence to admitting to myself that I’m finally sick. And part of it for me is ego—I don’t think of myself as someone who’s weak and needs care. Do you see yourself as someone who could actually tough it out?

Liu: I think that rings really true, because you want to think you are in control. You want to think you have your day’s routine—and going to work is a big part of this. It’s predictable. You know your desk, you know what you need to do that day, you have your calendar lined up. Admitting that you’re sick is disruptive and it throws you off, and it’s hard for the ego to tolerate.

But also, if I’m going to be honest with you, I’m tempted to believe that the world won’t go on if I hit pause for myself. I want to believe I’m instrumental in that way. And I think that just says something about the role that work can play in our lives, because I just don’t want to admit that if I take a sick day, everything goes on fine without me.

Ismail: Yeah. I wonder what emotions you feel when you do have other co-workers coming to you and saying, “Lowen, you’re sick. Go home.”

Liu: It feels a little personal. It’s like, why is this happening at work? It’s embarrassing. I feel a measure of defiance, like I have to tamp it down. But it’s easy to feel that “Oh, you want me to go home? Well, I’m just going to show you that I am tough enough to stick it out.”

Ismail: What is it that you are trying to prove to yourself?

Liu: The real problem is I know if I get sick and don’t take care of it, it ends up being more disruptive. I know that, but it’s a cycle that I can’t break out of. The problem is not me understanding—the problem is me actually changing something. Because if I truly believe people could fight through their illness, I would tell them to work while they’re sick. But this happens over and over again basically.

Ismail: I know you’ve been sick all week, and I know that you took yesterday to stay home and work. How did you decide that yesterday was going to be the day that you stayed home?

Liu: It was pressure. I got yelled at.

Ismail: Was it Forrest? Forrest told you to stay home?

Liu: No, it was a lot more than just Forrest. I mean, I’m ashamed. I wish I could say I had come to that decision on my own, but I didn’t.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “Why Men Who Are Sick Insist on Going to Work.”